Stewart Woods, Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012). 262pp. $40 pb.
Good “Eurogame” boardgames typically combine elegance of design and accessible themes and a rich depth of play. Stewart Woods’ book Eurogames does something much the same: it is a well-organized, clearly written, and intellectually rewarding study of the design, culture, and play of games of this genre.
The book has its origins as a PhD dissertation, and it shows—in a positive way. The author makes very effective use of the existing literature, citing it frequently (and often further expand upon an issue at hand in lengthy endnotes). The bibliography (pp. 231-255) is extensive. The analysis offered in the book flows smoothly and logically from chapter to chapter and theme to theme. The author wisely refrains from the opaque jargon that characterizes some academic studies of games and ludology.
The first few chapters of the volume provide an introduction to hobby games, survey the evolution of Anglo-American and German boardgaming, and trace the emergence of the Eurogames genre. Next, the book offers an examination of the systemic elements (components, spatial environment), compound elements (ruleset, game mechanics, theme, interface, information), and behavioural elements (player, context) of Eurogames. Woods’ discussion of game mechanics is especially useful, combining an overview of the most common forms of these with a quantitative analysis of their appearance within a representative sample of 139 Eurogames (Figures 5.2 and 5.3—click thumbnail at right to view). The book also contains pictures depicting the use of several of these mechanics within particular games. Later, a similar mix of qualitative and quantitative methods is used to examine major Eurogames themes (Figures 5.15 and 5.16—click thumbnails below right to view).
After exploring what a Eurogame is, Woods moves on to an examination of Eurogame players. Based on a survey of more than six hundred game enthusiasts from Boardgamegeek, Woods sketches a demographic profile of a hobby that is overwhelmingly male (96%), with players typically in their thirties or forties (average age 36) and having above-average income and education. He further discusses Eurogaming “geek” culture, game collection, and the frequent interaction within the community between players and game designers. His survey and questionnaire data is also used to provide insights into the gaming experience, addressing such questions as what elements players most enjoy in games (Figures 7.3 and 7.4—click thumbnails below right to view).
A key theme of the book is how players manage the apparent tensions between competitive game play on the one hand, and the convivial sociability of the game experience on the other. This includes such issues self-handicapping (whereby a strong player may deliberately make sub-optimal decisions to give weaker players a chance to win), and how players rationalize and limit in-game antagonism. As one of his respondents notes, “There is a fine line between trying to win and spoiling others’ enjoyment” (p. 186). Woods’ concludes that, for most players, “winning” is not the primary objective of the social experience of game play. This issue is further explored by focusing on in-game actions that might place stress on the balance between competition and sociality. In particular, Woods examines cheating, metagaming, deception, kibitzing, and king-making. While the players in his survey were universally and vehemently opposed to cheating, the other activities elicit a broader range of responses, varying between players (and likely between different social environments too).
Eurogames is an excellent book, providing a thoughtful examination of the genre. Its value, moreover, extends far beyond this to offer valuable insight into the social experience of game-playing more broadly.